Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology

Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology

In this culmination of his widely read and highly acclaimed Cultural Liturgies project, James K. A. Smith examines the political through the lens of liturgy. What if, he asks, citizens are not only thinkers or believers but lovers? Smith explores how our analysis of political institutions would look different if we viewed them as incubators of love-shaping practices--not m...

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Title:Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology
Author:James K.A. Smith
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Edition Language:English

Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology Reviews

  • Michael Nichols

    This is the book I’ve desired to read for about the past three to four years. Someone finally wrote it. (I was starting to worry I’d have to write it myself). Chapters one and two bolster the political nature of the church. Then chapters three through six work out the implications for Christian participation in earthly politics. Smith sketches what it might look like to do politics in a hopeful key, from a place of cruciform authority rather than sheer power.

    In brief, Smith takes the concept of

    This is the book I’ve desired to read for about the past three to four years. Someone finally wrote it. (I was starting to worry I’d have to write it myself). Chapters one and two bolster the political nature of the church. Then chapters three through six work out the implications for Christian participation in earthly politics. Smith sketches what it might look like to do politics in a hopeful key, from a place of cruciform authority rather than sheer power.

    In brief, Smith takes the concept of “church as polis” seriously (contra court-evangelicals), without over-realizing eschatology (contra Hauerwas). The church is the primary polis, which forms saints and funds imaginations. But—and this is a crucial but—we live in the saeculum, a passing age in which earthly authority has a mitigated, but necessary role. And because Christ is king over all of creation, Christ’s kingship has implications for political authority (Psalm 2). The church is to constantly witness to the state that it’s living on short time and borrowed authority; the King will return soon. But this does not mean abandoning the political arena. Rather it means calculated, measured participation driven by the evangelical proclamation for the sake of the common good.

    (If this sounds like Christendom, that’s because it is. And if that scares you, it’s almost certainly because nobody knows what Christendom actually is; they just know it’s an undesirable political scheme of ages passed. Read this book if you’d like to hear a winsome case for actual Christendom.)

  • Bob

    The 2016 election season in the U. S. underscored how vitally needed is a "public theology" among Christians in the U.S., both to shed light both on the outcome, and the path forward. But this is not new. People h

    The 2016 election season in the U. S. underscored how vitally needed is a "public theology" among Christians in the U.S., both to shed light both on the outcome, and the path forward. But this is not new. People have been lodging unrealistic hopes in political figures, and churches have permitted themselves to be held captive by glittering images since the time of Augustine.

    In this work, the third volume in his "Cultural Liturgies" series James K. A. Smith articulates a public theology that is both corrective and visionary. Drawing on Augustine, he develops an understanding of the two cities that both requires us to determine which city will hold our love and loyalty, and how we might live in the "city of man."  He articulates a vision that leads neither to withdrawal into religious enclaves nor to becoming captive to a particular party, ideology, or leader.

    Building on his earlier works, he observes that it is not only the liturgies of our church communities, but also those of our public life that shape our loves and our actions, sometimes far more than those of our churches. He also observes that we cannot retreat from political life, because our churches, and wider Christian movements are also a 

     of people who are part of the already/not yet "city of God" which is our ultimate hope and primary allegiance.

    In Augustine's day, this led him to counsel rulers to exercise Christian virtues in ruling justly as servants of the people while recognizing the disordered love of the city of man. Augustine recognized that rulers could herald the kingdom while realizing that their just and diligent rule only accomplished penultimate aims.

    He makes the interesting proposal that our liberal tradition that has allowed freedoms of speech and even pluralism is both rooted in and may best be sustained by Christian principles rather than a Rawlsian secularism. He also criticizes the applications of Kuyperian "sphere sovereignty" that exclude explicitly Christian referents from the spheres of public life. What he calls for is not a new Constantinianism (which he would contend is actually the propensity of secular ideologies), so much as John Inazu's "confident pluralism" that protects all religious expressions in the public square through the virtues of tolerance, humility, and patience. He thinks a "return to natural law" is not what is called for but a full recovery of the Christian story of the death, resurrection and coming kingdom of Jesus lived out in the church's formative practices. These ought to primarily shape our lives and concerns in the public arena while we recognize that our ultimate concern is not to "transform culture" but to point, in our public life, to the coming kingdom.

    Chapter Six on contested formations, with its example from the Godfather of a Corleone mob hit occurring simultaneous with one of the family's children being baptized, was sobering. It explains how pious religion can walk hand in hand with invidious forms of nationalism, racism, violence, and tyrannies of the left and right. Our public formation trumps our Christian formation, and our Christian formation ends up baptizing the public one. Smith admits there is no "silver bullet" (an interesting metaphor in the context of The Godfather!) but this underscores the role of pastor as public theologian, connecting the church's formative practices to life outside the church walls. He then concludes with four rules for ad hoc collaborations that delineate the possibilities and boundaries for Christians in public life.

    Smith gives us a public theology rooted in Augustine yet conversant with Rawls, Hauerwas, Kuyper, and Charles Taylor. This is a book that needs to be read by any thoughtful Christian who cares about our public life. It is a book for pastors who want to better help their people understand the present time. It is a book for church leaders wrestling with how their church's liturgical life, and formative practices might shape a counter-cultural people. Give this book your full attention and I believe it will open your eyes to new possibilities beyond our political divides and politically captive imagination. It did for me.

    ____________________________

    Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

  • Alex Stroshine

    3.5/5.

    One of the dangers of challenging yourself to read 75 books in a year is that it can make you read too fast to appreciate a book. This is only exacerbated if your reading of the book is fragmentary and even WORSE if you are not reading it alongside someone else so you can digest and discuss the book together. I might be guilty of a "poor" reading of 'Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology,' as a result.

    This is the final volume in James K.A. Smith's masterful Cultural Liturgies trilog

    3.5/5.

    One of the dangers of challenging yourself to read 75 books in a year is that it can make you read too fast to appreciate a book. This is only exacerbated if your reading of the book is fragmentary and even WORSE if you are not reading it alongside someone else so you can digest and discuss the book together. I might be guilty of a "poor" reading of 'Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology,' as a result.

    This is the final volume in James K.A. Smith's masterful Cultural Liturgies trilogy. It builds off of the earlier two volumes, in which Smith makes a powerful and persuasive case that EVERYONE, not just the religious, are liturgical creatures - we ALL worship something or someone, whether that is the God of the Bible, Allah, money, sex, acclaim, etc...We become liturgical creatures through practice, whether that is through the liturgy of the church or the tithing of money at the mall or participation in the electoral calendar. Smith explores the interplay between liturgical practice/formation and politics most clearly in the first chapter, "Rites Talk: The Worship of Democracy."

    Smith raised numerous points that I appreciate and affirm (through reading his earlier works I had already bought into his basic premise that worship forms us as liturgical creatures). For instance, he asserts that we must be aware of our historical context; particularity is important and we must be keen and observant cultural ethnographers (Smith highlights the role of ethnography for theology) of our society's zeitgeist (p. 124-25). He explains:

    "We need to beware of policy proposals that are 'principled' but fail to attend to history. Society is never a blank slate. We always find ourselves in some historically determined moment. Our 'here and now' is always the product of a 'there and then.' While good policy should be informed by enduring, even timeless wisdom, it is always policy FOR a particular people at a particular moment with a particular history" (p. 128).

    Smith follows many Reformed thinkers in advocating for a "prinicipled pluralism" but notes that this is a difficult concept to attain and he offers suggestions for how to "reform" it, particularly through inculcating the right habits and virtues of good citizenship (p. 144-45). He worries that a thin form of "prinicipled pluralism" can be too acquiescent, stating, "It's as if principled pluralism becomes a theological rationale for assuring liberal democrats that we're willing to play along with their functionally naturalized, secularized political game. Give us a seat at the table. We won't be a bother. We won't be so gauche as to invoke Jesus. We understand the rules. We promise to invoke only 'political' truth" (p. 141). He further laments that:

    "as both liberalism and capitalism tend to devour and erode just these institutions and communities [which form good citizens], they end up being a parasite that, starved by its own hunger, consumes the host and thus endangers its own demise. This raises serious questions about the viability of pluralism FROM THE LEFT, which has of late exhibited neither patience nor tolerance nor humility. While Christian political theologians continue to fret about the perceived threat of a Constantinian 'takeover,' in fact the most potent forces of hegemony and homogeneity have been progressives who are all too confident that they know the truth and thus are disinclined to be tolerant of those who disagree, or to wait for them to catch up with the 'right side of history.' Thus, pluralism is looking less and less like a LIBERAL ideal. What if it is, in fact, religious communities that are best able to articulate WHY we ought to be tolerant and that have the resources to cultivate tolerant citizens?" (p. 147)

    (This is particularly apropos considering the recent mandate by the Trudeau government that would make ineligible for summer job grant funding those organizations which affirm a pro-life stance).

    Smith also counters the common condemnation of Christendom that is often launched by the Yoder/Hauerwas branch of Christian thinking. Christendom involves the relationship between the church and the state. Smith asserts that Christendom is itself "missional" and that Christendom is not just the idealization of Roman Catholic ultramontanists or Christian Reconstructionists - even the civil rights movement itself was a "Christendom project" for Christendom is truly a "MISSIONAL endeavor that hopes and aims to expose governments and systems to the transformative power of the gospel" (p. 163). Smith quotes Peter Leithart who pithily but forcefully states "There was no arena in Constantinople;" though many are suspicious of Emperor Constantine, upon his conversion the gospel began to make inroads into the empire (p. 114).

    One of the philosophical/theological questions I constantly wrestle with is the validity and viability of "natural law." I believe that Roman Catholics tend to uphold natural law, noting that a certain sense of good and evil still, despite the Fall, lingers in human beings (Romans 2 appears to indicate this). However, Smith offers a persuasive critique of natural law, arguing:

    "Much that traffics under the banner of 'Christian' political theology and public engagement has little to do with the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Instead, what we get from allegedly 'Christian' public theologies are appeals to creation order and natural law, norms restricted to general revelation and the dictates of 'reason.' But where does reason dictate penance? And where does the natural law commend forgiveness and mercy? Did creation order ever drive us to our knees in a passionate prayer of confession? Yet are not such practices and virtues germane to the image-bearing task of governing?" (p. 153).

    Smith, along with most Protestants, seems to affirm that the Fall has entirely warped our moral capacity so that natural law itself is insufficient (indeed, he notes that natural law tends to be unpersuasive, such as natural law arguments against same-sex marriage, p. 155); instead, we require the radical and alien proclamation and pedagogy of special revelation that the creation order cannot come to on its own. In fact, Smith remarks:

    "Worship is not a rehearsal of a 'natural law' that can be known by reason or conscience; it is the restor(y)ing of a renewed humanity who are liturgically schooled. The index and criterion for justice and the right ordering of society is not some generic, universal, or 'natural' canon but rather the revealed, biblical story unfolded in God's covenant relationship with Israel and the church" (p. 60; see also p. 67n31).

    Thus, worship is about pedagogy and must be EXPLAINED so individuals are formed rightly in community (p. 205; one of the things I most appreciate about the service sheet at St. John's Vancouver Anglican Church is that on the side of the page there are explanatory notes that inform readers about why we confess and which describes the Apostle's Creed as the "national anthem" of the Christian Church). This is crucial so that individuals are not MALformed. Smith uses the example of Michael Corleone from "The Godfather" films (in so doing, Smith is addressing a common critique of the Cultural Liturgies project - that even those who seemingly participate in liturgy often lead very hypocritical and sinful lives). Corleone puts on the public display of being devout, attending weddings, funerals, baptisms, but how much of this is performed merely as an act of ethnic function? There is no evidence that Corleone truly seeks to live out Christian practices intentionally; rather, he (inconsistently) participates in these rites for show (p. 203-04).

    Lastly, following Hans Boersma, Smith worries that a frenetic swing of the pendulum has occurred among Christians. Before, fundamentalists and evangelicals were too focused on heaven (as Larry Norman sings "What a mess that world is in / I wonder who began it? / Don't ask me / I'm only visiting this planet") but in recent years we have reaffirmed the goodness of Creation (I think N.T. Wright's 'Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church' has been especially influential). In doing so, believers have perhaps made Christianity TOO immanent and this has had the negative affect of poisoning our political discourse because the politics of the earthly city thereby becomes ultimate; rather, we need to be oriented to the heavenly city (p. 210, 212-13).

    Still, I found myself a little underwhelmed by this last volume. The book at times felt discombobulated as Smith took excursions to tighten up arguments of the overall Cultural Liturgies project. There were stretches of "Awaiting the King," particularly the second chapter, that read more like "James K.A. Smith's Commentary on Oliver O'Donovan's 'Desire of the Nations'" (O'Donovan is a brilliant thinker, but I would've liked to have seen some more original thought; another problem is that I haven't read much O'Donovan myself). This also occurred in the sixth chapter on "Contested Formations: Our 'Godfather' Problem" with the works of Willie James Jennings and Ephraim Radner though in that case I can at least appreciate that Smith is using these two scholars' as interlocutors to address criticisms of the Cultural Liturgies project. I've read several books on Christianity and politics already (especially James Davison Hunter's excellent 'To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World') so I have already thought through a lot of what Smith covered.

    Another reason for being underwhelmed could be that there is not a whole lot of concrete proposals offered (I admit, this is inherently difficult to do; Smith stresses the need for contextualization and so it is hard to offer broad, sweeping proposals for all of his readers to follow) save that Christians should champion the "common good," both for themselves and for their neighbour. But what does that look like on the ground? I think of a local controversy from a few years back, the opening of safe injections sites in the Downtown Eastside. Is the "common good" to allow these safe injections sites so that drug users can be monitored while they inject drugs into themselves or is the "common good" to oppose these facilities because they wink at narcotics? Or what about language laws when it comes to businesses? Is the "common good" acknowledging that not every immigrant is able to speak the official language(s) of a country fluently and so space should be made for ethnic enclaves where businesses needn't conduct themselves in the country's official language? But then is this forming good citizens? But should we be wary of too heavy a demand for cultural assimilation?

    Absent from Smith's book is any interaction with the "social gospel" which is unfortunate, especially since I see it as itself a kind of "Christendom" project. Although the movement seemingly lacks modern leaders of the stature of Walter Rauschenbusch and Tommy Douglas, the social gospel was focused on addressing social problems, many of which now fall under "social justice" in today's parlance.

    In a pluralistic, politically-turbulent, post-Christian society, Christians need to know how to participate in culture and politics in order to care for their neighbours while working towards shalom. Smith offers a thoughtful articulation, more measured perhaps, and optimistic than Rod Dreher's 'The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation,' but I would suggest reading both (and especially Hunter's 'To Change the World!').

  • Scott

    A nice conclusion to a remarkable trilogy. While each volume seems to have to have it's own eclectic style and concerns, this seemed to me to be the most eclectic of the three. I began this trilogy now around 5 years ago and to finish it now I can see how it has shaped my thoughts on things like theological anthropology, and ecclesiological practice. This book strikes an interesting note as it touches on the intersection between ecclesial practices and "politics"—understood as the day in, day ou

    A nice conclusion to a remarkable trilogy. While each volume seems to have to have it's own eclectic style and concerns, this seemed to me to be the most eclectic of the three. I began this trilogy now around 5 years ago and to finish it now I can see how it has shaped my thoughts on things like theological anthropology, and ecclesiological practice. This book strikes an interesting note as it touches on the intersection between ecclesial practices and "politics"—understood as the day in, day out living in a community.

    There are Smithian idiosyncrasies, and some of the chapters are better than others. I also wonder if Smith's criticisms of things like the two kingdoms doctrine, and the natural law, are aimed at straw men. There was plenty of his proposals that, on my reading, are consonant with certain articulations of those proposals. Recent scholarship has also showed the way that even Kuyper himself is working with a form of the 2K doctrine (see, e.g., Going Dutch in the Modern Age: Abraham Kuyper's Struggle for a Free Church in the Nineteenth Century Netherlands by J. H. Wood).

    In addition, it's important to read early Dutch Neocalvinists (like Bavinck) in light of the papal encyclical Aeternis Patris and the way in which that shaped later Thomism. Bavinck's rejection of natural law, for example, is only intelligible within that context.

    Regardless, I love this trilogy. This final volume did not disappoint. The best chapters, in my opinion, were on the "craters of the gospel" and liberalisms borrowed capital from Christianity, and Smith addressing the "godfather problem" related to his project. Well worth the read and a brilliant conclusion to an important work in 21st c. theology.

  • Jeremy

    Watch Smith's video comment

    . A Baptist reviews it

    .

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